Crisis, but no surprise

Damian O'Loan
31 July 2008

Damian O'Loan (Paris): One wonders, observing the political crises in London and Belfast, how much is real and how much is 'silly season' filler. In the case of Northern Ireland, some may be surprised that “the hand of history” may not be leading to reconciliation after all.

The relationship with Brown's difficulty is that both crises represent the inevitable unravelling of spin to expose reality underneath. Blair said he solved Northern Ireland - as elsewhere, he spoke too soon.

The agreements leading to peace were founded largely on constructive ambiguity. Developed by Kissinger, this tactic has been used to devastating effect in a bloodier theatre since its use in Resolution 242. In cross-party negotiations, it was deemed partly responsible for the IRA ceasefire. It seems, though, the shades of grey that were the hallmark of the peace may now be its release valve.

We should not be surprised. The constructive ambiguity in the agreements demands that all parties play an active role in reconciliation. This is what voters asked for at referendum and election. The electorate is ahead of a political elite only further entrenched since devolution resumed.

Fundamental disagreements remain on certain issues from before Members took their Assembly seats. The Irish Language Act, a Maze stadium or a “shrine to terrorism”, abolition of academic selection at 11, the path forward for victims and survivors of the troubles... The discord is tolerable, that there has not been a single glimpse of breakthrough is, however, dismaying. Not one imaginative win-win proposal.

There have been complaints about late delivery of papers to various departments' scrutiny committees for months from Stormont's other main parties. This indicates a failure to agree even on banalities. The appalling fudge on victims' legislation went on for months, and on the wider issue continues over a year later. The smiling Paisley-McGuinness photos convinced a few, mostly fundamentalists, to found a beakaway. The irony is as they played lovers for wealthy investment-voyeurs, division on the ground was consolidated.

Paramilitary influence is being institutionalised in the form of restorative justice, a system used in schools in Britain and among former combatants and colleagues in NI, while no progress has been made on the Shared Future strategy against sectarianism. Dissident republicanism is increasingly worrying – 60 per cent of all intelligence gathered by four hundred MI5 staff in a £20m new-build.

The scandal is the failure of various leaderships to lead. They have done nothing to sell shared experiences. As within Brown's Labour, it is time to admit the lies inherent in past claims and seek a realistic way beyond the impasse. In Stormont, this means acceptance that shared interests must be sought and capitalised upon.

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